Vapers in India are facing the fight of their lives

I am here to tell you about the befuddling case of India, where conventional wisdom meets the brick wall of staggering numbers and skewed tobacco policy. The country is the second largest consumer of tobacco in the world: India spends $22 billion a year on tobacco-related illnesses, 120 million Indians smoke, and 900,000 die from tobacco use each year. Surely, nearly a million annual deaths should spur the state to seriously consider preventive measures through harm reduction.

Quite the opposite is happening though. Five Indian states have banned vaping, some others are leaning towards it, and a few days ago Union health minister JP Nadda stated in Parliament that the government is considering a national ban on electronic cigarettes. Why is this happening? Why is a country that hasn’t shied away from embracing technology trying to stub out a technological solution that can save millions of lives?

A key reason, not surprisingly, is economic. According to the latest GATS survey, although 29 percent of Indians use tobacco in some form, only four percent of them smoke cigarettes, comprising barely 11 percent of the total tobacco consumption. The other 89 percent is made up of a large portfolio of smokeless products, along with a hand-rolled cigarette known as ‘bidi’. This is unlike most parts of the world where cigarettes account for over 90 percent of tobacco consumption.

One would expect tobacco tax to be distributed through the segment, but wrong again. Smokers, who make up such a tiny portion of total tobacco users, pay 87 percent of the $5.3 billion annual tobacco tax, making cigarettes in India among the costliest in the world. As a percentage of per capita GDP, cigarette taxes in India are almost 14 times higher than in the USA, nine times higher than Japan and almost seven times more than China. Cigarette smokers are thus India’s cash cow despite being proportionately small in number, and anything that risks upsetting this apple cart invites resistance.

Then there is the issue of livelihoods. Farmers form the core of India’s still largely agrarian economy, and India is the second largest producer of tobacco in the world. The industry sustains 45 million livelihoods and the tobacco crop yields among the richest dividends. No surprise then that Karnataka, the state which produces the most flue-cured tobacco, the variety used in cigarettes, was the first to impose an outright ban on vaping.

None of this, however, is an excuse to continue letting millions die. It is unconscionable, and also bad economics. Instead of relying on cigarette smokers to subsidise the habit for other tobacco users and denying them access to safer products, the state should be looking at spreading out the tax burden so the benefits of prohibitionary pricing (if it works) are felt by all, exploring harm reduction avenues for all the categories, snus included, and figuring out ways to transition tobacco farmers and the industry to other sources of income.

This will be a make or break year for India’s vapers: the central government will pronounce its verdict, and the WHO’s COP8 meeting will signal the treatment vaping is met with globally.

What India needs right now is intervention on a global scale, mostly from governments that have recognized that the problem is the nicotine delivery mechanism, but also from researchers, advocates, manufacturers and vapers who, whether they realise or not, all have a stake in the direction this country takes. We also need credible local research, effective awareness programs and strident PR to make our case. And the need for industry standards that keep these new nicotine products out of the hands of children and ensure they are safe for use cannot be overstated.

This will be a make or break year for India’s vapers: the central government will pronounce its verdict, and the WHO’s COP8 meeting will signal the treatment vaping is met with globally.

What India needs right now is intervention on a global scale, mostly from governments that have recognized that the problem is the nicotine delivery mechanism, but also from researchers, advocates, manufacturers and vapers who, whether they realise or not, all have a stake in the direction this country takes. We also need credible local research, effective awareness programs and strident PR to make our case. And the need for industry standards that keep these new nicotine products out of the hands of children and ensure they are safe for use cannot be overstated.

This will be a make or break year for India’s vapers: the central government will pronounce its verdict, and the WHO’s COP8 meeting will signal the treatment vaping is met with globally. Also for most Asian countries, whose vape association representatives I met recently in Bangkok as part of the INNCO (International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations) Asia Pacific initiative. There are peculiarities between these countries, but also a common thread of governments considering bans and intense WHO pressure, which necessitates collective pushback.

Read more at vaping360.com

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